'There was really nobody like Russ'

NEWPORT BEACH — Robert Russell Brown, who shaped custom surfboards in the city since the 1960s, has died. He was 63.

Brown hanged himself, the Orange County coroner's office said. He was pronounced dead at 3:08 p.m. Saturday at Hoag Hospital.

Brown was known for his handmade surfboards, and had been part of the surf community since opening his shop, Russell Surfboards, on the Balboa Peninsula in 1967.

On Tuesday, flowers lined the Newport Boulevard shop, some with pictures of children with their first board bought from there.

"[He] wouldn't deny a kid," said Ryan Reynosa, 24, who said Brown never wanted to see a kid leave the store empty-handed, and would often take off $100 to make a board affordable.

To friends and family, Brown was known as "The King" and jokingly called "Gremmy" by some, said his stepson-in-law, Kenny Milton.

Brown made his first surfboard at the age of 12 or 13 in his father's garage when he was living in Los Angeles, Milton said.

His father didn't appreciate the mess, so eventually Brown started his own shop. He was only 20.

"Russ was the king," Kenny said. "If you bought a board from him, you were on the team. He got a few kids started."

Brown's methodology was "old school," Milton said. He shaped boards with a planer, sanding away at the board's foam.

Friends and family remember Brown as father figure to many in the surf community.

"He loved everybody," Milton said.

"He was like all of our dads in a way," said Reynosa, who was Brown's protégé.

Reynosa remembers Brown putting tires on his car and occasionally picking up a stranded friend — not without an occasional hard time, however.

"He tested your character," Reynosa said.

Brown's three employees remember his tough-as-nails exterior, but deep-down kindness, humbleness and playful nature.

"If the waves were killer out front ,he'd say, 'Get out of here. Go surf!,'" said George Baugh, 23.

Although Brown's decades of crafting surfboards earned him a reputation, he seemed unfazed by it. He didn't understand why people would want him to sign a surfboard bought at his store, said J.P. Roberts, 26, who worked at Brown's shop for the past five years.

"He wouldn't understand when people would say 'legend,'" Roberts said.

Employees also remembered one year around Christmas, the white-bearded surf shop owner ran into the store with a Santa hat — his shirt stiff with resin from working on surfboards — and yelling "Merry Christmas, mother****ers!" He then ran out with a surfboard, much to the shock of a patron who mistook Brown for a homeless person.

"There was really nobody like Russ," Reynosa said. "I couldn't handle somebody [else] like Russ."

Roberts said he "just started to love the guy. He was really wise."

Thousands of surfers are expected pay tribute to Brown on Sept. 10 and attend a paddleout at Blackie's, next to the Newport Pier, at 7:30 a.m.

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